The Barbados connection: the past involvement of the Drax family with the practice of slavery in the Caribbean

Facing up to the past

The Guardian reported, on Thursday 18th June 2020, that Lloyds of London, and Greene King, pub retailer and brewer, had apologised for their founders’ enrichment because of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Benjamin King, one of Greene King’s founders, was awarded compensation when his 231 slaves were granted freedom because of the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. CEO, Nick Mackenzie, said on Wednesday 17th June 2020, “it is inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery”. Meanwhile, Lloyds of London has apologised for the role it played in the 18th and 19th Century slave trade. A Lloyds spokesman said, “This was an appalling and shameful period of English history, as well as our own, and we condemn the indefensible wrongdoing that occurred during this period”. Simon Fraser, one of Lloyds of London’s founders, was granted compensation when his 162 slaves were granted freedom.

Memorial to the victims of slavery, Bridgetown, Barbados

Richard Drax’s slave owning ancestors

An article on the BBC News Website (27th February 2017) indicates that the forebears of Richard Drax were involved in the practice of slavery in the Caribbean.  University College’s Abolition of Slavery Compensation Data Base shows that John Sawbridge Erle-Drax was awarded £4,293 12s 6d compensation for the freedom granted to his slaves following the 1833 Act abolishing slavery within the British Empire (Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73)). (1)

African captives for the slave trade

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 (“An Act for the abolition of the Slave Trade”) had prohibited the Slave Trade, within the British Empire, but had not abolished the practice of slavery. John Sawbridge Erle-Drax had owned 189 slaves. The compensation awarded to him is estimated to be worth £3m today. Approximately £20m was paid out in compensation to 3,000 slave owners. The money was paid out to Sawbridge Erle-Drax in May 1836 for slaves at a Barbados Sugar Plantation.

The Drax family refused to comment to BBC News…

“Picking at bits of my family history”

The UCL Website notes: “Erle-Drax’s (John Sawbridge Erle-Drax took this name after he married Jane, daughter of Richard Erle-Drax Grosvenor) descendant, Richard Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, was elected as Conservative MP for South Dorset in the United Kingdom general election, 2010 using the ‘truncated’ name Richard Drax.

Conservative MP for South Dorset, “Richard Drax”

During the election campaign, there was some controversy when the Daily Mirror wrote that Drax’s ancestors had earned their fortune on slavery. In response, Drax replied in the Dorset Echo that: ‘I can’t be held responsible for something that happened 300 or 400 years ago. They are using the old class thing and that is not what this election is about, it’s not what I stand for, and I ignore it…I think it shows how desperate they are if all they can do is pick at bits of my family history.” (2)

BBC Documentary

Lamentably, the business of slavery was deeply embedded in British Society at the time. A documentary, on BBC iPlayer, brings home the inhumanity and terror of slave labour. A ledger is shown, listing the names of slave children, and giving the life expectancy of slaves. The monstrous implements of slavery are shown too, including a child-sized “tongue restraint”. The documentary may be viewed here.

The Drax family are first mentioned at 11.04, when comment is made of one James Drax who pioneered the use of black slaves rather than white indentured servants. At 25.46, reference is made to John Samuel Warnley Sawbridge Drax, compensated when his slaves were granted their freedom (as noted above).

The documentary was written and presented by the black historian David Olusoga OBE, who has written elsewhere about how he was racially abused at school by teachers and fellow pupils.


A manual for the “treatment of negroes”

The UCL Slave Legacy Data Base notes that one Edward Drax co-authored a 1786 publication entitled: “Instruction for the management of a plantation in Barbadoes (sic) and for the treatment of negroes”

“Negroes” are included in the section of the tract which relates to the “treatment” of “cattle, horses, sheep, hogs”. The “Instructions” were written for the management of a plantation of 260 acres, of which 160 were given over to sugar cane. They served as a guide to good practice rather than as a description of actual plantation management. (3)

Other ancestors

The UCL Data Base has numerous other references related to the ancestors of Richard Drax MP, together with details of their marriages and political lives: one of the earliest being of Colonel Drax, a cavalier in the English civil war, who retired to Barbados in 1647, where he acquired, within a few years, an estate worth £8,000 – £9,000 per year.

Drax Hall, perhaps inevitably, is the name of the Drax estate in Barbados. Sugar was first cultivated here in 1642. The hall remains one of only two remaining Jacobean houses in Barbados.

Statue depicting “Bussa” –  an African man that led the rebellion against slavery on Barbados

There can be no doubt that the wealth accrued from the cultivation of sugar in slave plantations in Barbados was of great benefit to the Drax family, enabling it to consolidate its position through strategic marriages in Jamaica and England (hence the swelling of the surname to what is now: Grosvenor Plunkett Ernle Erle Drax) to become one of the most important dynasties in the south west.

Members of Parliament

Mr John Erle-Drax was MP for Wareham from the 29th June 1841 to 24th March 1880.

Mr Richard Erle-Drax-Grosvenor was MP for New Romney from the 18th June 1818 to 22nd February 1819.

Mr Richard Drax has been MP for South Dorset from 6th May 2010 to date. (4)

The UCL Legacies of Slave Ownership Website notes of John Erle-Drax:

“The MP for the … corrupt borough of Wareham, Dorset, he appears to have never said anything in the Commons save for asking the Speaker that a window be opened (though this story may be apocryphal). A captain in the East Kent Militia; raised a troop of the Dorsetshire Yeomanry in 1830 to deal with the Swing Riots; patron of five church livings; appointed sheriff of Dorset, January 1840; a deputy-lieutenant of Dorset in the late 1850s”. (5)


(1) Legacies of British Slave Ownership:     

(2) As for Note 1

(3) As for Note 1

(4) See

(5) As for Note 1